QUESTION: When I looked online, I saw that the Wichita, Tawakoni, Kitsai and Caddo Indians had once settled in the East Texas area. There was no mention of the Cherokee Indians. I know that there are lakes named after regional Indian tribes. Why was the name Cherokee selected for Lake Cherokee? Who named it?
ANSWER: Ah, the Internet. If you don’t stumble into just the right corner, it’s not very helpful.
First, we have to talk about the Cherokees, because a small group of these North American Indians did make their way to East Texas during the early 1800s, you know, during those years when they were being “volunt-told” (that’s a term I borrowed from family members who have served in the military) or outright forced to leave the places they had called home. The Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online has a good summary of how they ended up in East Texas.
“Between 1790 and 1820, many Cherokees, hoping to preserve what remained of their traditional culture, voluntarily migrated west of the Mississippi River and settled in the future Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas,” the handbook says. “Those who chose to remain on their ancestral land in the Southeast were ultimately forced to move west by the United States Indian removal policy, which was initiated in 1830. Between 1838 and 1839, 16,000 to 18,000 Cherokees were forcibly marched to their new home in northeastern Indian Territory. An estimated 4,000 died on the march, which has come to be known as the Trail of Tears.”
The earliest Cherokees were reported in Texas in 1807, probably having moved here from Arkansas to settle along the Red River. Later, in 1820, a man known as “Chief Bowl” led about 60 families into Texas and settled on the Three Forks of the Trinity River.
“But pressure from prairie tribes forced them to move eastward into a virtually uninhabited region north of Nacogdoches now in Rusk County. They carved out farms on land that belonged to their friends, the Caddoes, a once powerful Indian confederacy that had been greatly reduced by warfare and epidemic diseases. By 1822 the Texas Cherokee population had grown to nearly three hundred.”
Texas entered a tumultuous time in its history not long after that, which, as all good Texans know, culminated in the Texas Revolution. The Cherokee people who were here declared themselves neutral in that war.
“The Texas revolutionary government, anxious to ensure Cherokee neutrality, sent Sam Houston to counsel with the tribe in the fall of 1835. Houston, the newly elected commander of the Texan forces, was an adopted member of the Cherokee tribe and became an influential advocate of the Cherokee people,” the handbook says.
As a result, there was an agreement forged to “establish a reservation for the Cherokees in East Texas that included the future Smith and Cherokee counties as well as parts of Van Zandt, Rusk, and Gregg counties. ... But the treaty was never ratified by the Texas government.”
Now, I’m going to answer the rest of your question by referring to an actual book: “The Little Book About Lake Cherokee,” which was written by Buddy Williams with a 2005 copyright date, is largely considered the go-to source of information on Lake Cherokee history.
That book tells you that Vern A. Clements, a Longview civic leader and bank president, is known as the “Father of Lake Cherokee.” He and other civic leaders led efforts to build the lake in the 1940s on what is called “Cherokee Bayou.”
“Cherokee Indians who once hunted through East Texas’ pine forests have long ago moved their villages from the banks of Cherokee Bayou and Lee’s Creek, but they left their name as a mark on the land which they ... once owned,” Williams’ book says. “Lake Cherokee, in many ways, is their legacy.”